This blog is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are of the author as a private citizen and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the US Department of State.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quick Hits, or Kristina and Pritham Part IV

--Today, I'm a little bit jealous. I'm at office hours, prepping for class, while Nicole is playing tour guide, taking K&P to Baalbeck and Anjaar, not to mention Chtula (a place 1. where everybody going from Lebanon to Damascus stops to fill out their exit cards before getting to the Syria border and 2. where they serve kick-ass arisha and honey sandwiches). Insha'Allah they'll have a great day. Me, I'll be teaching. Sigh.

--Nicole has blogged. As always, she brings the funny.

--Two fruity moments in Tripoli the other day, with K&P and Nicole and I. First, freshly squeezed orange and carrot juice on the street. Delicious, and served in glass mugs. You know what that means, my germaphobic American readers: you hand the empty glass back to the juiceseller who gives your glass a quick water rinse and fills it up for the next customer. Second, also on the street in the middle of the souks, fresh lemon or "toot" (mulberry) ice...perfect on a hot day. The iceseller has this enormous, electric, refrigerated, stainless steel bin with a division to separate the lemon from the toot. It's like a huge ice cream maker. He dumps juice into each bin and then takes a spatula and slaps the juice against the sides of the bin, which instantly freezes the liquid. When somebody orders an "ice," he takes the spatula and scrapes some off the sides. Great operation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Not much time to blog, but I had to post on our adventures in Jordan, because the trip was certainly one of the highlights of our year in the Middle East. Jordan is much more widely visited than Lebanon, even this year when visits to the country's historic sites are down eighty percent due in large part to hesitation among westerners to visit the region after the rash of revolutions in the Arab world. You go to ruins and culturally significant places in Jordan and see much more infrastructure and organized preservation, especially compared to sites in the south of Lebanon, still a place with relatively little security--at least in the perceptions of many.

Going to Jordan with Kristina and Pritham--our friends for over a decade--was a treat. We crammed so much into five days. Crusader castles, but also the Islamic castle at Ajlun, where Saladin defended the region against Europeans intent on conquering the Middle East. I should say that the old man outside Ajlun with the tin tea pot as ancient as the castle made the best mint tea I ever had. Everywhere in Jordan, old men cook tea, add fresh mint leaves and sugar, and sell in tiny cups. Wonderful stuff, even to a coffee drinker like Pritham.

Jerash, a city in the fertile, green, north of Jordan, boasts a remarkably large and well-preserved roman city. Hadrian's arch, named for the great emperor, a network of temples, a forum/agora, a hippodrome as nice as the one in Tyre (and I'm saying that as a lover of the south of Lebanon!), a nyphaemeum or public fountain, colonnaded streets, and a theater where old Arab men in kilts improbably play bagpipes to demonstrate the amazing acoustics. When we visited, we were perhaps the only foriegn tourists there, but we were surrounded by school groups. Hundreds of Jordanian kids. And they all did Arab dances to the bagpipe music.

Our guide Suhaib did us right, introducing us not only to the amazing mint tea (smoky from the coals on which it's cooked), but also to Sawani, a tasty stew that reminded me of my sister's Iraqi-inspired version of Middle-Eastern cuisine, and tabon, lumpy flat bread cooked in forns filled with hot stones and pieces of charcoal. He also was patient when we got a flat tire in the middle of the desert. He maintained his patience when the four of us monkeyed around in said desert, snapping pictures and carrying on.

Jordan is almost exclusively Sunni but has historical places with immense significance to all three religions with Middle-Eastern origins. Especially Mt. Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the promised land and then died, punishment from God for questioning his mission. We got to stand on that mountain and look out over Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethany, and Hebron. The Holy Land. Being there, you couldn't help but feel sadness that the place is the center of so much violence and injustice. Like Moses, we could look but not enter. Down the road from Mt. Nebo, we went to Madaba, the Mosaic City, so called because the Greek Orthodox church there (St. George's--a place FULL of icons including a really disturbing one of John the Baptist's head) has a fifth century mosaic floor with a detailed map of the Middle East. Beautiful.

Taking the King's Highway south to Petra reminded me of the winding road that leads from Tucson up to Mt. Lemon. High peaks, desert landscape, vistas with enormous valleys. We got to Petra late in the evening, sleepy, but Pritham and I didn't want to miss seeing the old city at night. Three nights per week, local Bedouins tell visitors about Bedouin hospitality (yes, they serve mint tea), line the narrow pass into the city with candles, and play traditional songs in the dark, lighted only by tiny candles. The part of the walk with cobblestones is brutal on the feet when it's dark out, but the experience is very cool.

Next morning all six of us (including young Henry, a British teen who's working for Suheib's tour company for a few months before he starts University) hiked that narrow pass. Pictures don't do justice. Words even less so. Imagine huge rocks in red, brown, ochre, and grey, ancient niches carved into them. Imagine a narrow, dusty path. Imagine tombs and dwellings and temples all carved into that rock. You can opt to ride a donkey but otherwise walking is the only way into the old city, made famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, created by the ancient Nabateans, who controlled part of the trade route that connected people of the Mediterranean to peoples of the Indian Ocean and the spices and silks there. Their city was well fortified, naturally, by this rock path. Virtually every edifice was carved into the huge rocks.

Highlights include the Treasury (the facade is familiar to anybody who saw the aforementioned Indiana Jones movie), the Royal Tombs, and the Monastery that requires walking up 900 stone steps from the Old City to a high peak where the mountains are less red and ochre and more black. Oh, the colors of those rocks. Again, pictures and words don't cut it. Petra earns its title as a wonder of the world.

We kicked around the southern desert, where Nicole experienced what she considered the trip's high point: a very fast and bumpy ride on the back of a 4x4 truck through Wadi Rum, the valley where "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed. The area, not far from Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia, is hot, dry, and inhabited by Bedouins who, once again, welcome visitors with tea. We also went to Aqaba, a city along the Red Sea, where we enjoyed amazing grouper for lunch. You look out over the Red Sea and on the opposite side is the border of Egypt and Israel. So as you look around the bay, you're looking at three (VERY) different countries. Kinda cool. And Saudi's only around 15 kilometers to the south, so it's a real point of convergence.

Lastly, the Dead Sea. You know the waters and muds of the Dead Sea are supposed to be healing, right? Well, Krstina and Pritham and Nicole and I went to the bank of the sea, caked ourselves with mud, waited for the mud to dry in the hot hot sun, and then rinsed in the Dead Sea. What a sight. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but our skin felt amazing. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth and is dazzlingly hot. The water is so salty that you naturally float, regardless of your body's position. You can't sink. I floated out pretty far from the bank and stood straight up in the water without touching bottom. It's a freaky feeling, to say the least. Our hotel also had a pool and three little Iraqi boys befriended Nicole and I in the morning when K&P were sleeping in and we were catching a swim. By "befriended," I mean began a water fight. Three brothers, parents nowhere to be found, determined to splash us, which made them laugh hysterically. The youngest, perhaps five years old, would remove his swim cap, try to fill it with as much water as it would hold, and then dump it on us. I don't think that kid ever had as much fun. The oldest insisted I cup my hands, scoop him by the feet, and toss him as high as I could. I counted off--"wahad, thnayn, thlatha"--and the sound of my Arabic, you guessed it, cracked him up. In his defense, the sound of my Arabic makes most Arabs laugh. Anyhoo, funny kids.

So much more to say about those five days, but I'll leave it at that for now. As always, a boatload of pictures available here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

K&P, Part II

So just in case you're reading this and thinking to yourself, isn't this guy a teacher? The answer's yes. I've just moved my class online this week, so all my teaching is taking place on my course moodle pages. Students are conducting research, assembling annotated bibliographies, and responding to each other electronically. I'm coaching their research and responding to their bibliographies online. So I can do the work during downtime during K&P's visit and in the evenings. I could say more about the projects students are working on (the possibility of civil marriage in Lebanon, drug problems in the Bekaa Valley, the growing presence of western fast food in Beirut), but I'll save that for another post or two. For now, adventures in frugal middle east adventures, Bill and Nicole style.

Have I ever blogged the telefrique? It's an old cable car that connects the seaside town of Jounieh to the Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral at Harissa, directly above the bay at Jounieh. From Harissa, Beirut is a tiny speck to the south, little villages dot the mountains to the north, and the very blue waters of the Mediterranean are in front of you. And you are VERY high, on a mountaintop. The bus does not go to Harissa, and I'm generally too cheap to spring for a taxi, so I'm all about the cable car. The lonely planet book's explanation of the telefrique is full of Hitchcock jokes--get ready for vertigo as you peak in the rear windows of Harissa residents from the terrifying telefrique.

After a few hours exploring the ruins of Jbeil (aka, "Byblos") and eating fish sandwiches at Feniqia, the place that gives you a little baby-sized saj to warm up bread at your table, I convinced the gang to hop off the bus in Jounieh and ride the cable car. They were closed in the morning because it was too windy to run the cars. Nicole initially wanted to stay on the bus and just meet up back home in Hamra, but we bribed her with the promise of stopping at Sea Sweets along the coastal road. So Nicole was in. The cars are pretty much just like the cable cars at Cedar Point, except you travel a much greater distance. You cross the highway heading away from the sea toward the mountain and, sure enough, you are looking in people's windows. When you get to the mountainside, the car hits a much steeper incline and instead of looking in people's windows, you're looking at trees that appear to grow horizontally, away from the side of the mountain. Vertigo? Heck yeah. Especially when you start to think about the fact that internet connections are lousy and the power goes out constantly here. Sure enough, our car stopped at one point and we just dangled over the mountain for about three or four minutes. Yikes. I think we were waiting for a generator to kick on.

K&P really liked Byblos, birthplace of the alphabet, birthplace of writing. Phoenician Kings ruled Byblos and were close allies of the Egyptian pharaos. Their stone temples and royal tombs, from four and five millennia before Christ, still survive and are pretty amazing. The Romans built their town over this complex, overlooking a Mediterranean harbor. The Crusaders later looted the Roman city for stones to use to build their own citadel there, which also survives to this day (and has survived umpteen empires conquering this place and decades of civil strife in the Middle East). That's some good architecture. The four of us did stop for chocolate from Sea Sweets and did the obligatory run down to Snack Faysal for spinach pies et al.

Yesterday's destination was Tyre, in the south. I think K&P found Saida to be the more charming of the southern cities, thanks to its partially enclosed souks in the old city, but Tyre's ruins didn't disappoint. Tony, if you're reading this: the ghost was not in Tyre this week; maybe he only shows up when you're visiting. Tyre's hippodrome has got to be one of the most amazing and well preserved remnants of the ancient world. Three days in a row of tombs, temples, and crusader castles, all thanks to the amazing buses of Lebanon. They might be smokey, but boy is the price right. Might be the last time Nicole and I visit some of these cities too, so I think this has been as meaningful for us as it's been for Pritham and Kristina. Our friend Karine met up with us in the evening and we had a nice visit. Certainly went to bed with lots to be thankful for, especially good friends from all over the world.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

K&P, Day One

Our friends Kristina and Pritham are visiting from the U.S. I'm up bright and early and about to make some fo'ul for breakfast but a few quick highlights from yesterday. First, and this connects to the fo'ul, walking from Eshmoun back to Saida we passed by a farm with huge greenhouses and Pritham sort of wandered onto the compound. We told him that, given the barbed wire, maybe visiting wasn't a good idea, but of course we're talking about not only Lebanon, but *south* the hospitality is almost overwhelming. Sure enough, a couple guys from the farm came out and gave us a "faddul" (more or less: "please come in"), so we walked around their greenhouses to check out the operations. Really beautiful operation, especially the tomatoes, which they had vining on/around twine that ran from the ground to the greenhouse ceiling. They insisted I fill my backpack with the largest fava bean pods (thus the fo'ul for breakfast today) I've ever seen. And they invited us to stay and smoke some shisha with them but it certainly would have turned into a three-hour affair, thereby making us miss the last bus north. Also, I had pretty much exhausted my entire Arabic vocabulary already.

Back on the coastal road, we went to get the best ice cream in Lebanon. I should say that most ice cream places here encourage you to mix up as many flavors as possible in your cup. So even if you get a small, you can get tiny spoons of five, six, seven flavors. Lovely. Waiting in "line"--which in the middle east usually means mass of humanity in blob formation--a guy named Hassan (or "Hank, my American name") struck up a conversation. Turns out he lived in Ohio for thirty years and is now back home in his village outside Saida. I told him I taught in Dearborn and he said, "Oh, Bint Jbeil, Michigan." He's obviously familiar with Dearborn. So now after a nice talk about ice cream we have a standing invitation to visit Hank's village. Hopefully that will happen sometime soon.

K & P enjoyed wandering around Saida. We spent most of the day wandering in the old city, having some delicious fish, and chatting up the priest at the old Greek Orthodox church in the souks, who wants Nicole and I to go back to Saida for Easter Mass (Catholic and Orthodox Easters fall on the same day this year).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Edward Field

The American poet Edward Field is visiting the English Department this week and I had the pleasure yesterday of attending an intimate session with Field and a group of AUB students and faculty. Field spoke about his distinguished career, his writing process, and his bohemian experiences in Tangier, Greenwich Village, and even Afghanistan. A few bites:

* "Sentimentality used to be the biggest sin in poetry. I know what they mean--false feelings. But what about real feelings?"

* "Rewriting is the hard part. And the fun part."

* "In my poetry, I take off all my clothes."

A lovely session. I hope that tomorrow--when I head to Cafe Younes for a day of writing--that his words continue to resonate. I should also say that I walked away from his session wanting to visit Morocco but not Afghanistan. I'm hoping to attend his more public reading this evening.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Teaching Orwell

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell suggests that euphemism and vague, abstract, cliched, and partisan language weaken public discourse. Circumlocution is a sign of weak writing and weak thinking and leads to more weak writing and weak thinking. Orwell claims that language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." The state intentionally uses vague, euphemistic phrases like "elimination of undesirably elements" to avoid reality. We have an ethical imperative to write clear, honest prose so we don't internalize and repeat state-imposed, sometimes unethical slogans. This influential, sixty-year-old essay has become canonical in writing courses because it argues that bad writing has consequences.

We read this essay in my English 204 course yesterday and students really resonded to Orwell's critique of language and discourse. I shared the American example of "collateral damage," and a few students knew the phrase. I asked them to share further examples of euphemisms or abstractions. Initially, their examples were general: politicians use language that makes their own parties sound good. "Yes, but can you think of any specific phrases?" I gently pushed. Finally, specificity, as one student mentioned that Hezbollah uses the phrase "divine victory" when talking about their 2006 war with Israel. A valid, if uncomfortable, example. Part of me immediately regretted pushing for specific examples. The student explained (in very non-partisan fashion) that "divine victory" is an abstraction and hence fits Orwell's conception of vague political discourse, but I still hoped that his example would not cause unspoken conflicts in the very diverse class.

The experience reminded me of my own complicated position as a teacher and outsider. I'm comfortable in the U.S. "teaching the conflicts," that is, engaging students with controversial issues of the day in order to analyze the language used by politicians, media, social movement leaders, and everyday people, and formulate their own ideas and arguments about those issues. Lebanon is a different context and I'm mindful that my presence as a teacher from the West echoes colonialism in some ways. I have no intentions to convert, save, or impose a partisan belief system, but I do want to teach critical engagement with the English language, so experiences like this present certain challenges.

America has its Orwellian moments, from last month's congressional hearings on Muslim loyalty to the post-9/11 suspension of civil liberties in the name of security. Lebanon does too. On English-language tv stations, words like "gay" and "pork" are censored. Odd that an episode of "Glee" that centers on a gay, out, high school student (not to mention teen pregnancy) can air, but the WORD "gay" is censored. Likewise, cooking shows can broadcast people cooking and eating pork but the WORD itself is bleeped. A friend and AUB colleague did some research on state censorship and posted on his blog a very interesting list of banned films along with justification. The document apparently comes from a local DVD retailer and was given to the retailer by the state. Justifications vary from materials subject to boycotts and blacklists to materials considered obscene, anti-Christian, or anti-Islamic. Some of the justifications themselves are wildly anti-semitic. Many are Orwellian, insomuch as they use vague language to advance a political end.

About many of these matters I am still an outsider. I will always be something of an outsider by virtue of my nationality. But I'm beginning to learn about the issues and their contexts and I want very much to understand more deeply. You can learn a lot from reading. You can learn even more from being present in a place and interacting with real people. Perhaps one of the best ways to understand is to put the learning that happens via human interaction in conversation with the learning that happens from reading texts like Orwell's essay.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"On This Earth" by Mahmoud Darwish

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April's hesitation, the
aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman's point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the
of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute's sigh and the invaders' fears
of memories.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the final days of
September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in prison, a cloud
reflecting a swarm
of creatures, the peoples' applause for those who face death with a smile,
a tyrant's fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this earth, the Lady
of Earth,
mother of all beginnings and ends. She was called Palestine. Her name
later became
Palestine. My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cafe Younes

Today I write at Cafe Younes. I work on two essays at once, toggling back and forth, composing and revising. Whereas most of Beirut prefers tiny cups of espresso or sludgy turkish or Arabic coffee, french presses rule here. We're close to campus and all things European carry cultural capital. I sit outside on Younes patio, drink my french press, breathe secondhand smoke. Old Arab men reading stacks of newspapers with stories about unrest in Syria, kidnapped Estonians in the Bekaa, and revolution in Libya smoke. Undergrads working on power point presentations smoke. A man who looks just like Javier Bardem and speaks what I'm pretty sure is a non-Lebanese Arabic dialect smokes. Round, mosaic tables. Free copies of the Guardian, International Herald-Tribune, Daily Star, and various Arabic papers. A brilliant place to write.